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A test of integrity

Sunday June 13, 2010 A test of integrity

TEACHER TALK By MALLIKA VASUGI

Instead of being morally righteous, our exam-obsessed society seems to have no qualms about gaining access to ‘leaked’ questions before a major exam.

ASK any Malaysian government school teacher and she will tell you that assessment is as fundamental to the school curriculum as oxygen is to life.

The very suggestion of doing away with examinations may send a shiver running through many teachers’ spines.

Why, a curriculum or school time-table that does not incorporate testing or assessment at various levels is simply… unthinkable. A whole school year without examinations? Preposterous! What on earth are we teaching them for, if there were no examinations at the end of it?

A good question really, if we have time to think about it. What on earth are we teaching them for, then, if there were no examinations at the end of it?

But usually there is no time to think about it. We are often so busy with the preparation, the administration and evaluation process of assessments that we have no time to think about the reasons for it in the first place.

But we do know that assessment is an integral part of our education system. There is no doubt about that at all.

We know that assessment in all its forms besides providing necessary feedback teaches us about our students’ level of achievement in a subject. It also informs our students of their weaknesses and strengths.

We also hope that this would make them take remedial measures or spur them on to higher goals. Quite often it is also a reflection of our own teaching and it causes us to sit back and either re-strategise or modify our teaching methods.

It is mainly through the results of examinations like the Lower Secondary Assessment (PMR) that students are later “streamed” into areas of study like the sciences and humanities.

Their aptitude in these fields are once again perceived through the measurement of their test performances. Their future career path also becomes narrowed down by the choices of subjects they take at the next examination level.

A tunnel vision perspective of education would be like this: You go to school to study, do well in your exams, so that later you get a job that pays a lot and lets you lead a comfortable life.

There really isn’t anything wrong with that kind of logic, except perhaps for the parts that have been missed out — huge chunks actually, when you come to think of it in terms of personal, holistic development.

Importance of exams

The way it is now, in most schools, examinations have the highest place of importance in the school agenda, and almost everything that goes on in school is planned carefully so as not to tread upon or upset the esteemed prominence of the major examinations.

Examinations, however, are allowed the liberty of encroaching into other “lesser important” aspects of school life, like co-curricular activities for instance — simply because they are examinations.

The importance of examinations cannot be undervalued, it is true, but neither should we stand back and allow it to suck up like a sponge every other part of education that allows a student to become the whole, balanced individual he was meant to be.

For most of us school teachers, the mid-year school examination has just been over and we have resignedly accepted the fact that a huge slice of our much needeed two-week break is going to be devoured by the endless task of grading examination answer scripts.

In some states, the mid-year examination was standardised for certain levels, as is the case usually with the trial UPSR, PMR and SPM examinations later on in the year.

What happens is that questions are formulated by a central committee of teachers and distributed later to every school in the state before the actual examination dates, which are also standardised, so that every student does the same questions at the same time.

These provisions undoubtedly elevate the significance of the examinations, and help to invoke a sense of a “major examination” among the students — which is not a bad thing as students get a taste of what the actual exam is going to be like.

However, many students seem to have access to the test questions way before the actual examination date.

Some even have the complete answer schemes, which make a mockery of these “mock” standardised examinations. So where do these questions come from?

How are students able to get these questions? Some students say that they get the questions from tuition centres. Mostly however, they claim to have received them from a friend of a friend.

Confidential information

If anyone has the time or is interested enough to trace the source of these “leaks”, they will find the one common factor here. The only people who are supposed to have access to these standardised sulit (confidential) questions are the teachers involved.

They could either be those who were part of the question formulators, or those to whom the questions were sent to.

It is not too difficult to figure out the math here.

The irony is that classroom teaching is very heavily based on “teaching to the test”. We want to make sure our students do well in their examination so we spend a lot of time training them on the correct answering “techniques”.

There are even teachers amongst us who proudly proclaim that with the “blessings” of both parents and the school authorities, they teach only to the test and nothing else.

In short, every classroom lesson focuses on answering examination questions “to ensure that their students are thoroughly prepared for the exam”.

The strange thing however is, after all that “examination preparation”, they unflippingly divulge examination questions to their students under the guise of examination “tips”.

So what gives?

Is it due to their own lack of confidence in their teaching abilities? Is it due to the pressure from school principals to mark them down if students do not perform up to sometimes unrealistic expectations? Is it due to increased marketability as personal tuition teachers?

“Let’s send our kids to this tuition centre,” we almost hear parents saying. “The teachers give them all the examination questions before hand.”

Doesn’t the whole issue involve personal integrity?

Is it a flaw in our own exam-obsessed society, where a higher premium is placed on examination performance, rather than on an individual and his sense of honesty and justice?

How do we prevent our students later on from reasoning this way? If it is okay to cheat in school, if our teachers even provide encouragement to cheat, why then can’t we cheat later on? In university, in the workplace? What’s wrong with plagiarising or copying?”

Some teachers suggest take-home assignments or open-book tests as an alternative, and again that would be fine as long as it is done on a level playing field.

If examination questions are to be given as take-home assignments then everyone should have access to them. Even then, control for validity and reliability of students’ scores would be difficult.

While continuous assessment and alternative forms such as portfolios, checklists or interviews are possible, the fact remains that we can never quite disconnect ourselves from the traditional formative, summative, pencil-paper forms of testing, as up till now, these are the most systematic forms of testing in schools and provide the most validity.

The uneasy and often unexpressed feeling running through many minds here is how long will it be before, despite all the security measures and the oaths to secrecy that there may be little “leaks” of questions in the actual major examination papers trickling down to benefit some and not others.

After all is said and done, it boils down to one word — integrity — of students and other persons involved.

The day one of our students can tell us that despite having access to examination questions, he or she has chosen not to view them because of personal conviction, will be the day that we know that one true educational goal has been fulfilled.




Source : The STAR Education Teacher Talk : A test of integrity
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